Imagine this: You’re lying on your stomach or back. Someone gently prods points on your body looking for a tender spot, then swiftly taps in a thread-thin needle before slowly working it deeper, a millimeter at a time. Muscles ache and release, tingles go up and down your limbs. Occasionally it feels like nothing at all, but sometimes it’s as painful and fleeting as an electric shock. Some moments require a little Lamaze breathing.
Not exactly how you picture pimple prevention, right? But acupuncture is an important part of an Eastern approach to acne treatment. And at 29, after 10 years of trying everything to cure the persistent breakouts plaguing my chin and cheeks, that’s the approach I’d decided I was going for. I had been controlling my acne with a prescription called spironolactone for six years. The oral medication made my skin virtually zit-proof, but I realized something: It wasn’t actually fixing the problem. In fact, though the drug worked, no doctors could tell me what my problem was exactly.
So I quit the pills and went looking for answers. My search led me to the treatment table of Williamsburg, Brooklyn acupuncturist and herbalist Sandra Lanshin Chiu, who has developed a niche in treating skin and acne with traditional Chinese medicine. Her philosophy: Use clues from the body to detect its unique source of inflammation and treat the cause rather than the symptom.
The one problem with that philosophy — for me at least: It requires patience. And patience is not (or at least was not) one of my virtues. The fine-tuned Eastern approach takes a lot of trial-and-error — potentially a few months of it—which was crazy-making for me. So Chiu and I came up with a plan: I would go back on the drugs to clear my skin and get my confidence up again, and then, with her help, taper down, slowly transitioning to an all-natural combination of treatments.
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The most potent elements of my Eastern treatment are the toxin- and inflammation-clearing herbs, which are adjusted bi-weekly depending on conditions like my sleep quality, digestion (yes, my poop), stress level, and menstrual cycle. They come as precooked liquids that taste like a mix of hay, vinegar, and spoiled vegetables; I have to drink them twice a day.
The second part of the regimen is a traditional massage technique I do every morning called gua sha. I use a flat jade stone to gently pull or "scrape" the skin on my neck, chin, cheeks, forehead, and around my eyes. The process takes up to 10 minutes to complete, but the results are a kind of face-firming, glow-inducing lymphatic drainage I’ve only ever gotten from the most talented facialists.
Finally, once a week, Chiu uses those hair-thin needles to help relieve my stress and improve my circulation.
Okay, so what is wrong with me? Chiu’s take is that my body tends to be sluggish about carting off toxins, which leads to a buildup in the skin. In traditional Chinese medicine, this is referred to as having too much “damp.” Sexy. This also explains why the spironolactone, which is a diuretic, was so effective for me. Chiu has been helping my body reduce inflammation, clear toxins, and support my under-functioning organs so I might someday not need herbs at all.
Some Western doctors might scoff at all this, but it’s certainly working for me. After a year of working with Chiu, I’m down to a half-dose of my spironolactone — a level that never did the trick in the past — and my breakouts are smaller, far less frequent, and much easier to calm. The other case I have to make for my Eastern treatments: Every week I have an hour-long check-in with someone about my diet, workouts, mood, and skin. In turn, I’ve become far more in tune with how to keep my body happy and healthy. I’ve slowed down a bit — and maybe that was just the answer I needed.